Tapping the Maples: A Sweet , Long Overdue Harbinger of Spring

Clack, clack, clack ...

The metallic ring of a hammer pounding in a spile, or maple sugar tap, echoed through the woods Friday morning, and I held my breath for a moment.

Sure enough, a miracle: A single drop of sap grudgingly appeared on the spout. An hour or so later about a cup of the clear liquid collected in a plastic jug.

"Spring is upon us! " I cried.

"Great!" Steve Kurczy, a friend visiting from Bueonos Aires by way of Woodstock, Conn., replied.

Having endured such a relentlessly frigid winter we all need some reassurance that days of warm sunshine eventually will return. Some rely on the first sighting of a robin; others welcome crocuses and skunk cabbage poking through the snow; others await the arrival of pitchers and catchers at baseball's spring training; meteorological sticklers insist on holding out until the official vernal equinox that occurs this year precisely at 12:57 p.m. EDT March 20.

For the last several years, as loyal readers and viewers of The Day's videos may recall, my most reliable spring indicator has been sap flowing from the maples.

Historians credit Native Americans with discovering that sap can be converted to syrup by allowing it to freeze and removing the ice. Colonists later perfected the operation by boiling saps in kettles.

Though modern producers string miles of plastic tubing between tapped trees and then employ sophisticated reverse-osmosis technology and hydrometers to remove water and measure sugar content, my system hasn't evolved much from centuries-old practices: I drill holes in maples, pound in taps, collect sap in gallon jugs that hang below the spigots, and then, using a makeshift fire pit behind our house, boil the clear liquid for hours until it turns a rich brown.

Regardless of which method you use, it still takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

I customarily tap about 20 trees and in good years have been rewarded with a gallon or so of syrup — much of which friends and I immediately consume at the fire over pancakes cooked on a cast iron skillet topped with ice cream, or, for health fanatics, over Greek yogurt.

Because this season has gotten off to such a late start I don't have high hopes for a bumper yield, but I'm hoping quality compensates for what may be lacking in quantity.

For the last several weeks I've been monitoring the outdoor thermometer closely, waiting for the right conditions to tap. You need cold nights followed by warm days, but until late in the week we've had nothing but freezing temperatures 24/7.

Steve, eager to gain insights into the maple operation, came over to help.

In past years the sap started flowing as if from a faucet, but not so this season.

"It's a leap of faith," I explained.

It's also a question of timing: You can't tap trees too soon or you'll get nothing but sawdust from the hole drilled into the tree; if you tap too late in spring maples produce bud sap that after boiling down tastes more like like Palmolive dish detergent than something you want to serve with pancakes.

I hope to start boiling in about a week.

The key is to remove just enough water to sweeten the liquid — but if you let the kettle boil too long the sap can disintegrate to ashes in a heartbeat. A couple years ago I rescued one batch just in the nick of time. It had started to carmelize and turned into a kind of maple crème brule — a feat I could never repeat in a millennium of maple syrup production.

Anyway, I'm thrilled that my spring has finally arrived. It's been a bitter winter; we all deserve something sweet.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

A Connecticut Yankee In The Northwest Part II: A Cross-Country Ski Adventure, Of Sorts, At Oregon’s Crater Lake

Lugging back-country skis and poles on our shoulders, my son Tom and I trudged along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, searching for a section of road that had not been plowed.

A Connecticut Yankee In The Northwest: Stunning Views, Adventures On Land And Water (Part I)

As I clambered toward the crest of the Mist Trail in California’s Yosemite National Park a couple weeks ago, spray from the thunderous Nevada Fall washed over me, but I was already soaked, with sweat, after gaining nearly 2,000 feet of...

Vacations From Hell: At Least They’re Memorable

Just between us, don’t you hate it when friends or coworkers post photos on Facebook of awesome journeys to exotic destinations – or if they’re really old-school, send postcards depicting glorious sunsets, sparkling lakes,...

In Stride With Women Runners: Amby Burfoot Celebrates Their History In A New Book

Back in the Dark Ages when I was growing up, one of the worst insults an adolescent male could hurl at one of his buddies was, "You run like a girl!"

Danger, Swan Attack! Quick, Wring Its Neck!

It’s difficult to imagine a more outrageous example of idiotic government overreaction than this week’s incident involving a mute swan on Five Mile Pond in Danielson, which would almost be laughable if the outcome weren’t so...

The Parable Of The Rope: An Icy Mountain Drama In New Hampshire's Carter Notch

With a blustery breeze making the 8-degree temperature feel as if were a few notches below zero, our group didn’t intend to dawdle while scrambling back to civilization. The mountain hut where we spent the night had been so frigid my boots...

Over The Falls! A Salmon River Adventure

You know that feeling when you’re about to attempt something adventurous that at first seemed it would be fun, but then doubts about your safety and sanity crept in? Oh no! Too late!

There's No Such Thing As Too Much Garlic

A few years ago, while visiting relatives in Canada, I noticed a giant basket of produce in a corner of the kitchen. "Wow! Where’d you get all that garlic?" I asked.

Plenty Of Mudslinging On The Trail

Well, we’ve made it through another winter, though for snow and ice fans it was pretty pitiful – but we’re not quite out of the woods when it comes to challenging hiking conditions.

Hey, Shaddup Out There! At Least Can You Tone Down All That Screeching, Snorting, Squawking, Croaking, Buzzing And Howling?

OK, I get it. It’s mating season, when all the furry, feathered and slimy critters are desperate for a little action, using the only pickup technique they know: make loud noises.

'Life Is Full of Roadblocks, But You Have to Drive Through Them' – Dirk Vlieks' Inspiring Recovery

After having swum the 1.2-mile leg of Hawaii’s Rohto Half-Ironman triathlon Dirk Vlieks of Mystic was 22 miles into the 56-mile bike section, already thinking ahead to the 13.1-mile run to the finish line, when he began to feel...

My Acute Case of OCWD (Obsessive Compulsive Wood Disorder)

You’d think that those of us who heat with wood can relax this time of year when we no longer must make 10 trips a day to the woodshed, stumble out of bed at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, continuously shovel ashes and forage the forest for...

The Eagles Have Landed Again On The Connecticut River – And A Surprise Encounter While Kayaking Among Ice Floes

For viewing shore birds, marine mammals and a veritable Noah’s ark of critters that live near the water, nothing beats a kayak. Over the years I’ve paddled among seals, loons, beavers, sharks, sea turtles, otters, muskrats, snakes,...